Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Tall Tale in Tennis

Let us now praise a famous (and very tall) Croat.

Ivo Karlovic  hit  a record 75 aces in a first-round tennis match yesterday at the Australian Open.  He had 38 in the fifth set, which he won, 22-20.  He broke the old record by 24.

Karlovic is 6’10” or 6’11” depending on who measured him and when.  Andy Roddick, who once held the world’s record for the fastest serve in a professional match, called Ivo’s serve “the biggest weapon in tennis.”  Ivo now holds the record for the fastest serve in an ATP match, 156 mph.  He also holds the all-time record for most career aces, well over 10,500, and probably will become the first player ever to record 11,000 of them. Ivo also holds the record for the world’s fastest SECOND serve — 144 mph!  He once served a record 45 aces in a three-set match (20 is considered a lot).

Next month, Ivo Karlovic will be 38 years old.  Last year he became the oldest player in four decades to win an ATP tournament.  He is the oldest man in three decades to be ranked among the top 20 players in the world. He is the oldest player ever to reach the third round of play in the French Open.  He is one of the few players in history to win titles on all three surfaces — grass, clay and hard courts — in a single year.

Ivo has become the grand old man of tennis despite a succession of injuries and surgeries and a bout of viral meningitis that went undiagnosed until he fell into a coma.  When he awakened he couldn’t remember his own name or what year it was — but three months later he made the finals of an ATP tournament, which he lost despite hitting 22 aces.

A few months ago, he was drawn to play a teen-ager in the first round of a tournament.  When a reporter mentioned the difference in ages, Ivo said, “Yes, I am old enough to be his Daddy.” (Pause). “Maybe I am!”

Actually, Ivo, who was married in 2005, has a five-year-old daughter, Jada.  Karlovic recently tweeted: “My daughter said, ‘Daddy, you have a big nose, like an elephant.’  I told her, ‘Go to bed.  No story tonight!’”

Karlovic frequently is in the running in the annual voting for the ATP tour “fan favorite” player.  His amiable banter in press interviews, and his tweets on twitter, may be one reason why.  During a recent tournament he tweeted that he had been watching Stan Wawrinka’s match on TV, but “commentators talking so much bull that I had to mute them.” Once when he was about to play another big server in a tournament, he quipped to his opponent, “We could save a lot of time by just playing tie-breakers right away.”  After he lost a match 6-7, 7-6, 6-7, 4-6 to Pete Sampras, he said the match was “a crapshoot.  Maybe we should just roll dice.”  

He has beaten both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic when they held the world’s No. 1 ranking. A reporter once asked him if he thought he could beat Federer without the benefit of the tie-break rule.  “Yup,” he said. “In a street fight.”  

“Who do you like in this tournament?” a reporter asked before a Grand Slam event. “Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray?”  Without a pause, Ivo said, “I prefer girls.”  When asked about the mechanics of the world’s greatest serve, he said, “Throw the ball up and smack it.”

Years ago the conventional wisdom held that tennis wasn’t a sport for tall guys, but that myth has been shattered over and over again.  Marin Cilic, a Croat who won the U.S. Open, is 6’5”, and Goran Ivanisevic, a Croat who won Wimbledon, is 6’4”.  Ivanisevic held the all-time career record for aces until Karlovic broke it. The American John Isner, who won the longest match ever played in professional tennis, is 6’9”. Many of the most promising young players today are over 6’4”. Reilly Opelka, a 19-year-old American who lost a five-setter to the 11th seed in Australia yesterday, is 6/11”.

Tall guys will do great things on the tennis court in years to come. When they do, Ivo Karlovic will be in the wings with something funny to say.  Count on it.

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